UK TV review: Gossip Girl (2021)
Drama and deviance6
Jo Bromilow | On 29, Aug 2021
It was inevitable, I suppose. Not even 10 years since the original series (read our review here) signed off with a knowing wink and that reveal and the hairband-wearing corpse of Gossip Girl has been exhumed, smothered in Glossier and sent back out onto the subway (as if; she’s in a town car) to get a whole new international generation hooked on the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite.
As a die-hard fan of OG GG, I was always going to both watch the remake and pore over every detail for opportunities to pick holes, since those pesky showrunners took away my chance to guess at the identity of GG herself from the off, giving themselves extra work to create tension and intrigue. But for the sake of fairness, I’ll do my best to assess the new show on its own merits, mostly.
So, to set the scene. We’re back at twin private schools Constance Billard and St Jude’s on New York’s Upper East Side, where the teens are the kings and queens. The new cohort includes Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander – surely set to inspire a thousand buzzcuts), an influencer micro-managed by her entourage of Monet and Luna (Savanah Lee Smith and Zion Moreno – the catty comic relief who get all the best lines) and occasionally distracted by the neuroses of her sometime bestie Audrey (Emily Alyn Lind – all huge doe eyes, luxurious blonde hair and Grey Gardens-esque interior decor and parental relationship), her meek, mildly angsty boyfriend Aki (Evan Mock – also set to inspire a thousand buzzcuts) and the suave, sexually liberated bad boy Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty – the Chuck Bass of the piece for all you OGs).
Enduring the eye-rolls of this entourage are the teachers – a group of improbably qualified millennials who will endear OG fans only because we’re all sick of being mocked by Gen Z. Tired of being brow-beaten by their charges, they decide to take charge by turning the judgemental lens on their students, setting up an anonymous Instagram account to conflate and disseminate gossip to bring the mean teens down a few pegs. But whereas the original show took a long time before the subjects of scandal began to manipulate GG for their own ends, these tech-savvy teens rise to the challenge of taking down, breaking down and ultimately learning how to manipulate their digital puppet-master.
Into the fray – and powering the drama by offering at least a theoretical conflict point for Julien’s status on top – strolls Zoya Lott (Whitney Peak), Julien’s half-sister with a chip on her shoulder and a scholarship under her belt, come to bring a little SJW to the UES and add a frisson of disruption to the core group at the heart of Constance-St Jude’s. Will Julien’s guilty rich boyfriend, Obie (Eli Brown), have his head turned by Zoya’s political zeal? How will Julien – and her followers – react to the arrival of a new, young challenger? And how will the teachers – poring over the pages of the original Gossip Girl site for tips on how to operate the monster they’ve created – fan the flames of conflict to further their Insta-experiment?
There’s a lot to enjoy about the way that the students – Gen Z, famously born into social media mastery – run rings around the fumbling confusion of the teachers (led by Tavi Gevinson in casting that works as clever PR and meta-commentary but is let down by the weakness of her acting) struggling to master the app their targets made famous. Revealing Gossip Girl so early out of the gate redistributes the power behind the anonymous voice (a returning Kirsten Bell) and diminishes her from all-seeing eye to slightly awkward occasional narrator who doesn’t wield the same fear and control that made the original show being named after her fair.
But what makes this version most interesting is that it shines a light on something the original didn’t – the power of the reader. Opposite Gossip Girl’s stumbling rise to Instagram fame is Julien’s own, constrained not by the perfect walls of her Upper East Side image (a la Blair Waldorf of the original series) but the wax and wane of her followers’ interest. As the show builds momentum, the fluctuating power position of these two Insta power players over the readership driving them offers an interesting comparison to the original show. Where Blair, Serena et al were aspirational It Girls awarded power by Page Six, Julien’s future truly is held in check by the hoi polloi in a way the original characters would have balked at. And where glitz, glamour and the tantalising suggestion of sex, drugs and rock and roll caused parents the world over to melt down over OG GG, the new show treats all three like just another Tuesday night (leading to some explicit sex scenes and some likely appreciated honesty around sexual exploration that were lacking from the very cishet original).
Though as a result the drama has to become heightened and cross over into ethical territory even murkier than the original – which, considering the show has already attracted considerable controversy for putting the teachers in the role of Gossip Girl and therefore encouraging them to play Peeping Tom on their underage targets, is quite a feat. I don’t know how this show is going to sustain tension when a teacher who happens to have access to Gossip Girl uses it to blackmail a student features within the first 10 episodes, but I sense this is going to get even more ethically messy before we’re done.
By the time the mid-season break arrives (Part 2 is due back on the BBC at a yet-to-be-confirmed date), we’ve hurtled through more fall-outs, hook-ups and parental neuroses (plus Malcolm McDowell on excellent form as a de facto Rupert Murdoch) than the original managed in the same time, and has found a rhythm that might make the second half almost gripping. But it’s still missing something that made the original so bingeable: compelling characters. Julien and Zoya’s love-hate relationship is weak and inconsistent, and Obie, the man in the middle, is so devoid of appeal that he makes Chase Crawford’s bland Nate Archibald positively magnetic. Blake Lively and Leighton Meester’s star power was undeniable, even within the OG pilot, and sadly none of these young actors – or, more accurately, the parts written for them, have the hooks required to draw us in.
True, they are starring in a very different show and the muted drama of this version doesn’t call for the camp that OG stars such as Ed Westwick revelled in. But whereas the original had grit behind the gloss, this update – its cast and its writers – needs to add something to grip behind the grit if it’s going to have a shot at making a lasting impact.
Gossip Girl (2021) is available on BBC iPlayer